Pretty in Pearls – The June Birthstone

Russian Cross, Orthodox Cross, pearl jewelry, enamel, ornate old believer, june birthstone, custom

Custom sterling Ornate Old Believer Cross with pearls.

June is a unique month in that it has not one, but three “official” birthstones: the moonstone, the alexandrite, and the pearl.  But unlike the rare alexandrite (whose exclusivity and cost surpasses that of diamonds, sapphires, and rubies) and the milky moonstone (whose popularity has waned in recent years), the pervasive pearl remains as a symbol of elegance and effortless glamour, making it June’s principal birthstone.  This week, we’re showcasing this beautifully delicate gem in our blog.

Celebrating a June birthday or just love the sophistication of pearls? We invite you to explore Gallery Byzantium’s Pearl Collection. See another piece you like that is not set with a pearl? Give us a call at 800-798-6173 or e-mail us at info@gallerybyzantium and we’d be happy to customize one of our pieces for you!

What’s a pearl, anyway?

Pearls in the rough. Photo via

Pearls have been desired since ancient times.  The Greeks believed them to be the tears of the gods.  Early Chinese legends have it that they were carried in the teeth of dragons and could only be cultivated after the dragon was slain.  Coco Chanel thought them to be the epitome of elegance and often paired them with her timeless designs.  But what is it about pearls that makes them so enduringly coveted and timelessly chic?

It could be that the pearl is the only gemstone that is created by a living creature. Technically, pearls can be made by any mollusk (soft-bodied, unsegmented invertebrates) who create their own shell – like snails or mussels.  However, only select groups of bivalve mollusks (mollusks with two shells that close together like a compact mirror) have shells lined with nacre, also known as “mother-of-pearl.” Without prattling on about the fascinating biology of mollusks, a fragment within the mollusk is repeatedly coated with nacre (secreted by the pearl-creating mollusk in question) creating a lustrous pearl.  This central fragment is usually a parasite.  It’s essentially a snowball effect, noting, however, that the result is a pearl and not Frosty the Snowman.

Photo via

Given the long process to create a pearl, added to the fact that only one in 10,000 mollusks produce viable pearls, these natural pearls are the rarest and most expensive.  Natural pearls are typically a creamy white with reflective luster, however misnomer-ed black pearls (which can be green, blue, silver, or purple) have been found, albeit rarely so.

Most common today is the cultured pearl which is made by “implanting a grafted piece of shell (and sometimes a round bead) into pearl oysters or freshwater pearl mussels.” Like their natural counterparts, the typical cultured pearl is the traditional “pearly white,” however they can be dyed a myriad of colors. 

Natural or cultured, pearls require a lot of care.  Their hardness on the Mohs Scale ranges between 2.5 and 4.5, making them rather soft and susceptible to nicks and scrapes.  Pearls “are sensitive to extreme heat and acidity; in fact, calcium carbonate is so susceptible to acid that pearls will dissolve in vinegar.” Be careful cleaning your pearl jewelry!

For the love of pearls

Mosaic of Theodora – Basilica of San Vitale. Photo by Petar Milošević, via Wikimedia.

It is believed that a tribe along the coast of India first discovered pearls while scouring oysters for food.  Apocryphal or true, historians and gemologists can agree that pearls have been coveted since their initial discovery.  In fact, “the oldest known pearl jewelry was discovered in the sarcophagus of a Persian Princess who died in 520 B.C..”

Because natural pearls are so rare, (remember that only 1 in 10,000 mollusks produce “jewelry” pearls), they were reserved for the adornment of royalty and aristocracy in the ancient world.  The Byzantines mandated that only the emperor could wear pearls (as evidenced by the famous mosaic of Theodora, pictured right).  The Egyptians were so enamored of their pearls that they were buried with their beloved gemstones.  It is said that Cleopatra even crushed a large pearl into a goblet of wine, dissolved it, and drank the decadent concoction to convince Marc Antony that Egypt was too wealthy and powerful for Roman conquest (side note: it worked).

MET. Cross with Pearls. Byzantine, 1200-1400. Gold and pearls

While they didn’t ingest their pearls, the Romans were mad about the elusive gem.  They often paired pearls with emeralds, “upholstered couches with pearls and sewed so many into their gowns that they actually walked on their pearl-encrusted hems. Caligula, having made his horse a consul, decorated it with a pearl necklace.”  (At least the horse was well-dressed, despite his penchant for rejecting any proposals with a vigorous “neigh.”)

With the emergence of cheaper, cultured pearls in the early 20th century, the fondness for pearls spread, thanks to the endorsement of Coco Chanel who touted the wearing of “costume jewelry.”  Her timeless fashions were incomplete without a string (or three!) of pearls.  To this day, pearls have remained a sign of glamor, sophistication, and classic beauty.

American Gem Society: June Birthstones –
American Gem Society: Pearl Overview –
NOVA: The History of Pearls –
American Museum of Natural History: Pearls –
BioKids: Snails, Clams, Squids, and Octopodes –
Raw Pearls: Pearl Knowledge –
American Gem Society: Pearl History –
Main image – MET. Jeweled Bracelet. Constantinople, 500–700. Gold, silver, pearls, amethyst, sapphire, glass, quartz

Categorized in: